Women in digital archaeology redux: The girl with the space unicorn tattoo

So last week I presented my paper on the experiences of women in digital archaeology at CAA Atlanta. The small crowd there for the session were friendly, open to my findings, and engaged with what I was saying – there’s always going to be a degree of preaching to the converted. It started some great conversations on Twitter and hopefully got at least a few people to a place where they know where they can talk about their issues, know they’re not alone, and know that someone is out there fighting their corner.

The most tangible result, as far as the conference itself goes, was being able to feedback my findings and suggestions to the committee. I have hopes that the CAA Code of Conduct, at the moment in it’s infancy, will encode in firm, written clauses the rights and responsibilities of all conference goers (and, by extension, all practitioners of digital archaeology) when it comes to issues around overt and covert sexual harassment, unacceptable behaviour, and precisely what will happen to those that don’t follow the rules.

There was some minor trolling on Twitter – apparently my feminist agenda doesn’t belong with serious things like maths and computers. This was amateur stuff and as many women on the internet will tell you, we’ve seen and dealt with far worse. It simply served to prove the point I was making about our experiences being othered and ignored.


What was most disappointing, then, was not the reaction to my paper itself – but rather behaviour similar to that reported within it that was directed towards me in the days following.

As some of you who may follow me on Twitter may know, I picked up a dress for conference that was extremely fabulous and covered in space unicorns, which much to my delight was approved of greatly by many of my peers. In the end I didn’t wear it to give my paper – I got a case of “will I get harassed for not dressing professionally enough and undermine my message” on the morning of the conference I wore something less offensively offbeat. I was disappointed in myself – I let just the thought of being judged on my appearance dissuade me from expressing myself.

Later in the conference I did wear the dress – it was a great conversation starter and got a lot of very interesting people talking to me. In an adventure out to an American mall (which, I found disappointingly, was very similar to going on a bus to Meadowhall…) I found a bracelet that also had unicorns on – and tweeted it, knowing many would get the reference to my dress. So far, so rainbow-coloured.

Only, not every response was favourable. One follower, someone who I had been planning to work with at future conferences, voiced disapproval. Wearing this choice of jewellery would be “neither big nor clever”. I replied that thankfully, I choose things to wear based on how much I like them, not to be big or clever. Unfortunately the conversation took a nosedive from there on, where I was patronised and ridiculed for taking the statements seriously, even when I pointed out that exactly these kind of appearance-policing, patronising microaggressions had been part of my recent paper on the treatment of women, a part of the wider climate that lead to them leaving the field.

I pulled my abstracts from their sessions, and did not receive a very professional response.

In the days since I’ve thought about not mentioning it again – in the grand scheme of things it is minor, after all. But that precise minimising of our experiences is one of the keys ways women are socialised to put up with this kind of behaviour towards us. My statement that I wanted to be treated respectfully was met with derision. That’s the key component here: respect. A piece of jewellery I choose to wear in no way effects the respect I deserve as an academic, a researcher, an adult, or just another human being.

So space unicorns are now my Thing. On completion of my PhD I was already planning a tattoo (yes, a woman with tattoos, another apparent taboo that earns me “less respect” as a woman in academia) – and I now I know the perfect one. A glorious space unicorn that will always remind me to still be me, and not bow under the weight of male expectations of appearance, conduct, or behaviours. That’s my feminist agenda: to be the woman I am, and not to be ashamed of it.


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